The Purpose of Wikileaks

Jul 05, 2011

Wikileaks logoOne of the things I'm interesting in at the moment is how through the internet we're seeing a form of activist emerge, looking to change the world through fairly untraditional means. As some of the most high profile and interesting examples, I'm going to look at Wikileaks and Facebook. My starting point is the idea that both of these are projects that attempt to utilize the power of technology to create social change without the need for a large consensus in favour of that change. Assange is much easier than Zuckerberg to examine in this respect because he's quite publicly explored and written down exactly what he believes and intends to accomplish and Wikileaks is quite clearly conceived of as a way to achieve these ends (whereas while Facebook is underpinned by various philosophies, I suspect it wasn't conceived of as a means to an end in quite the same way).

Aaron Bady has a fantastic exploration of his ideas here, but as he says Assange's original is quite readable. His basic premise is that most governments and organisations can be understood as conspiracies (with an explicit parallel to how terrorist networks have been modelled) that will create ways to communicate in secret. Having an environment where secrets can be kept makes it more likely that things that need to keep secret will occur (typically bad things) and so we want methods of destroying these conspiracies. The traditional method of destroying important nodes (e.g. assassination of key figures) is not always hugely effective if the network can route round them (plus it's frowned upon in politic society) so Assange focuses on how the links between conspirators can be disrupted to erode and reduce the 'total conspiratorial power' of the network. While that essay doesn't look at the idea of leaks specifically, Wikileaks quite clearly fits neatly into that role.

It's helpful to look at this through a specific example, so let's think about how 'cablegate' fits in. It's a nice point of irony the reason why this leak was possible at all was the realisation in the US intelligence community of the issue that more secure communication is not always the most effective communication, one of the conclusion that came out of the 9/11 commission was that a fair amount of useful information existed but was being kept in closed silos by various different agencies and that a system that sharing information needed to be used more. This led to massive expansion in the use of SIPRNet to the point it's now accessible in a large amount of embassies and US military bases, and while we can't say how many people have physical access to the system in 1993 at least three million had the 'secret' clearance that would have given them the right to view it and there's no particular reason to think that's decreased by a huge degree ( for scale, that's around 1% of the current US population). The electronic nature means that it's possible to steal what would once have been a warehouse of data out in something that fits in your pocket and while there are also safeguards in place to detect and prevent people doing exactly what Manning is accused of doing, there are suggestions that this was turned off as it was inconvenient for people using the system (The problem in microcosm: greater secrecy again getting in the way of an efficient system.)

The interesting bit of Assange's thinking is not the familiar trade-off between convenience/openness and secrecy/security but how he intends to use that to get the conspiracy to destroy itself. He argues that a conspiracy that's communication is compromised will lock down further, reducing its own ability to organise and conspire that will ultimately lead to it either losing the ability to function at all or reduce its ability to fight off outside threats. As Bady put it:

Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state's conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

This endgame and the focus on making the links between conspirators untrusted explains why these leaks are of a different character to how we'd normally expect leaks to look. Typically leaks are things considered by the leaker to be evidence of crimes, bad practice, etc but in this case while there have been a few juicy tidbits the vast majority of the leaks are quite boring because for this strategy the content of the leaks is almost unimportant as it's their very existence that reduces the trust of the conspirators and makes them turn on the system[2. The other side of this is that releasing boring information shows how much information is pointlessly marked secret and can be seen as part of the argument in favour of more open government, all of us linked to all of us has greater ‘computational power’ in Assange’s language and releasing information more freely increases the prospects of it being combined with other useful information to result better analysis of that information. This is a view of government openness framed in terms of efficiency rather than public interest that can be picked up in a lot in techie discussion on the subject and I might see if I can explore further in a future post.].

In this case, we can probably expect to see the network close down, by enforcing the security procedures that already exist or having better division of access so that people on military bases in Iraq don't have access to the entire sum of secret knowledge but the interesting question is if the diplomats will trust any such system or if in future they'll be more guarded in what they write and just rely on informal communication for anything they don't want to write down.

This reliance on informal methods will indeed make it dumber, slower and less able to function – but will it shut down altogether? I suspect not, the modern state can survive an enormous amount of inefficiency and Stephen Walt's argument that through America's overwhelming global dominance its decision making processes are insulated from even large screw-ups applies here. US global hegemony and its state's secrecy culture can survive a lesser functioning diplomatic corp. and there are no real existential threats on the institution. The 'convince the snake to eat itself' strategy can only be effective in organisations where there is very small difference between 'status quo' and 'complete institutional collapse', which I don't think is the case in a lot of these organisations.

We can see other examples of this in the 'postit' culture it's been suggested has risen within the British government after FOI came in, where rather than leave controversial details in documents that may someday be subject to FOI request (and even ones that won't) these are attached as post-it notes to the documents, which can safely be discarded at the other end. Less efficient maybe and terrible for future historians, but it is unlikely to lead to internal collapse or leave it much more vulnerable to outside threats. The institution is secure. Fundamentally Wikileaks represents an attempt to create an institution that in turn creates institutional change in other organisations. It doesn't seek to directly destroy secretive norms of behaviour, it seeks to turn them in on themselves and my thinking is that this will ultimately prove ineffective as there are many lower levels of function the conspiracy will be willing to accept.

To return to starting point what I'm trying to get at is that the internet allows powerful institutions to exist without requiring much in the way of social support. One man with a Lady Gaga CD can download the entire backlog of diplomatic cables, and another group can deliver the largest leak in history to the world. In terms of sheer power, the internet is a great leveller but what Assange (and as we'll get to, Zuckerberg) want is norm changes. Wikileaks has the power to disrupt conspiracies directly by leaking damaging information on them but what he really wants to able to do is remove the ability to conspire and prevent future potential conspirators even wanting to – and I think this a goal I'm skeptical can be accomplished in all cases through the clash he describes and requires a view on how institutions can be reformed to openness.

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